New era in sectoral social dialogue takes shape

In May 1998, the European Commission adopted a Decision which set in train a shake-up in the organisation of the European-level sectoral social dialogue. The Decision provided for the establishment of new "sectoral dialogue committees" to replace the existing joint committees, informal working groups and non-structured discussion groups. By 1 February 1999, the social partners in almost all sectors with existing dialogues had submitted their applications for the establishment of the new committees, while new sectors are also seeking to join the dialogue. The reorganisation has led to some restructuring of the dialogue and is expected to provide the impetus for innovation and renewed focused activity at this level, along the lines of the priorities outlined in the EU Employment Guidelines, particularly in their "adaptability pillar".

The European Commission has always placed significant emphasis on the social dialogue between employers' organisation and trade unions, given that the development of the European Union and its policies has a significant impact on employers and employees, while at the same time depending on public approval for its legitimation. Following the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty on European Union and the annexed social policy Protocol and Agreement, the position of the European-level social partners has been further boosted by giving them a more powerful role in the EU's social policy decision-making process, notably allowing them to reach agreements which can take the place of legislation in some circumstances. These new powers have successfully been put into effect at the intersectoral level with the negotiation of the framework agreements on parental leave (TN9801201S) and part-time work (EU9706131F) - both of which have been implemented by Council Directives - and the January 1999 draft agreement on fixed-term contracts (EU9901147F). At the sectoral level, an agreement has been reached on working time in the maritime sector (EU9802182F), which is also to be implemented via a Directive (EU9901144F).

In order to adapt the structures of the social dialogue to these new requirements and to inject renewed focus and dynamism into an organisational framework which was essentially established 30 years ago, the Commission adopted a Communication concerning the development of the social dialogue process at Community level (COM(96) 448 final) in September 1996 (EU9702102F). This was followed by a period of intense consultations between DGV of the Commission and social partner organisations, which culminated in the adoption of a second Communication on adapting and promoting the social dialogue at Community level (COM(98) 322) in May 1998 (EU9806110F).

Replacing the old sectoral dialogue structures

As part of its Communication, the Commission adopted on 20 May 1998 a Decision "setting up sectoral dialogue committees promoting the dialogue between the social partners at European level". These sectoral dialogue committees were to replace the joint committees and informal working groups which were the existing structures for the sectoral social dialogue. There was a view that these structures had become over-institutionalised and that the new structure would therefore inject new focus and dynamism into the sectoral social dialogue.

Table 1 below sets out the details of the formal joint committees which were in existence at the time of the Decision.

Table 1. Sectors with joint committees
Sector Year created Social partners
Agriculture 1963* Employers: Employers' Group of the Committee of Agricultural Organisations in the European Union (GEOPA-COPA). Unions: European Federation of Agricultural Workers' Unions (EFA). (EU9709145F)
Road transport 1965 Employers: International Road Transport Union (IRU). Unions: Federation of Transport Workers' Unions in the European Union (FST). (EU9809127F)
Inland navigation 1967** Employers: International Union for Inland Navigation (IUIN), European Shippers' Organisation (ESO). Unions: FST. (EU9808122F)
Railways 1972 Employers: Community of European Railways (CCFE). Unions: FST. (EU9808122F)
Maritime transport 1987 Employers: European Community Shipowners' Association (ECSA). Unions: FST. (EU9808122F)
Civil aviation 1990 Employers: Association of European Airlines (AEA), European Regional Airlines Association (ERA), Independent Air Carriers in the EC (ACE), Air Carriers of the EC (ACCA), Airports Council International (ACI). Unions: FST. (EU9808122F)
Sea fishing 1974 Employers: Association of National Organisations of Fishing Enterprises in the EU (Europêche), General Committee for Agricultural Cooperation in the European Community- fishing sector (Cogeca). Unions: FST.
Telecommunications 1990 Employers: Representatives of public and private sector operators. Unions: Communications International (CI), European Federation of Employees in Public Services (Eurofedop).
Postal services 1994 Employers: As for telecoms. Unions: As for telecoms. (EU9812136F)

* Joint advisory committee on the social problems of paid agricultural workers - joint committee since 1974.

** Joint advisory committee - joint committee since 1980.

Source: See note for table 2 below.

Table 2 below sets out the details of the informal working groups which were in existence at the time of the Decision.

Table 2. Sectors with informal working groups
Sector Year created Social partners
Hotels, restaurants, cafés 1983 Employers: Confederation of the National Hotel and Restaurant Associations in the EU and EEA (HOTREC). Unions: European Committee of Food, Catering and Allied Workers' Unions within the IUF (ECF-IUF).
Commerce 1985 Employers: EuroCommerce. Unions: European Regional Organisation of the International Federation of Commercial, Clerical, Professional and Technical Employees (Euro-FIET).
Insurance 1987 Employers: European Insurance Committee (CEA), International Association of Insurance and Reinsurance Intermediaries (BIPAR), Association of European Cooperative and Mutual Insurance Companies (ACME). Unions: Euro-FIET.
Banks 1990 Employers:Banking Federation of the European Union (FBE), European Savings Banks Group (GECE), European Cooperative Banks Group (GEBC). Unions: Euro-FIET.
Footwear 1991 Employers: European Confederation of the Footwear Industry (ECFI). Unions: European Trade Union Committee: Textiles, Clothing and Leather (ETUC:TCL) (EU9810131F)
Construction 1992 Employers: European Construction Industry Federation (FIEC). Unions: European Federation of Building and Woodworkers (EFBWW). (EU9808124F)
Cleaning 1992 Employers: European Federation of Cleaning Industries (EFCI). Unions: Euro-FIET. (EU9812137N)
Textiles and clothing 1992 Employers: European Apparel and Textile Organisation (EURATEX). Unions: ETUC:TCL. (EU9709150N)
Private security 1992 Employers: European Federation of Security Services (CoEss). Unions: Euro-FIET.
Woodworking 1994 Employers: European Confederation of Woodworking Industries (CEI-Bois). Unions: EFBWW.
Sugar 1968 Employers: European Committee of Sugar Manufacturers (CEFS). Unions: ECF-IUF. (EU9812138N)

Sources:"Social dialogue - the situation in the Community in 1995", Social Europe 2/95, European Commission;"Status report 1996", Social Dialogue Newsletter, Special Issue, 1997.

The new sectoral dialogue committees

The Commission Decision provides that sectoral dialogue committees should be established in those sectors where the social partners make a joint request to participate in a European-level dialogue and where the organisations representing both sides of industry fulfil a set of criteria. The organisations must:

  1. relate to specific sectors or categories and be organised at European level;
  2. consist of organisations which are themselves an "integral and recognised part of Member States’ social partner structures", which have "the capacity to negotiate agreements", and which are "representative of several Member States"; and
  3. have "adequate structures to ensure their effective participation" in the work of the Committees.

The role of the committees is to be consulted on developments at Community level with social implications, and to develop and promote the social dialogue at sectoral level.

The total number of social partner representatives taking part in committee meetings may not exceed 40, divided equally between employers' and workers' delegations. There are 15 fully funded attendees on either side, with both the employer and trade union delegations able to bring another five self-funding participants. The representatives are invited to participate in meetings by the Commission on a proposal from the social partner organisations which requested the establishment of the committee. The committees hold one plenary meeting per year, with additional meetings scheduled depending on the nature of their plan of work.

The decision to abolish the existing joint committees (their mandate effectively came to an end on 31 December 1998) was - and remains - controversial, particularly among their members, who tend to perceive the reorganisation as bringing about a loss of status. Members of joint committees were previously officially nominated to the position, and attended all meetings. The new framework of "variable geometry" implies that different individuals may attend meetings depending on the subject matter under discussion. The number of individuals attending the meetings has also been reduced.

Procedure and progress to date

As stated above, the procedure for establishing the new sectoral dialogue committees starts with a joint request from the sector's European-level social partners. When making the request, each organisation is required to complete a questionnaire providing information about its sectoral coverage, the size of the specific sector at the national level (number of workers and number of undertakings), and the number of member organisations at national level. The survey aims to establish if the criteria of the Decision are met (see above).

In early 1999, the European Commission is in the process of issuing letters inviting the social partners to start or continue their social dialogue, it being clear that this invitation is revocable depending on the outcome of an analysis of their cumulative representativeness for the sector concerned.

Once this letter has been issued, the social dialogue can continue, pending the representativeness assessment. In the meantime, larger meetings requiring Commission subsidy for translation and other facilities are suspended until the letters with the provisional approval of the Commission for the establishment of a new sectoral committee have been issued.

By 1 February 1999, the Commission had received applications for the establishment of new sectoral dialogue committees from the social partners' representatives in the following 21 sectors:

  • agriculture;
  • road transport;
  • inland navigation;
  • railways;
  • maritime transport;
  • civil aviation;
  • sea fishing;
  • telecommunications;
  • postal services;
  • hotels, catering and tourism;
  • commerce;
  • banks;
  • footwear;
  • construction;
  • private security;
  • cleaning industry;
  • personal services;
  • temporary work;
  • leather;
  • sugar; and
  • performing arts.

Of the old informal working groups, only three had so far not applied to establish a new sectoral dialogue committee - those in insurance, woodworking and textiles. However, the textiles sector at least is expected to submit an application in the not too distant future.

Some of the above sectors represent relatively new developments, for example, the social dialogue which was started in the hairdressing sector is to be expanded to cover all other personal services, while new formalised sectoral social dialogue initiatives are being developed in the temporary work sector and in the performing arts.

Several other new sectors are widely anticipated to joint the 21 listed above. These include the electricity industry and the public services (EU9803190F). The coverage of the latter committee remains to be decided, but it appears likely that an application will be made which will include the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR). In the electricity industry, there has for some time been an informal dialogue between the European Grouping of the Electricity Supply Industry (EURELECTRIC), the European Mine, Chemical and Energy Workers' Federation (EMCEF) and the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), which led to the adoption of a joint document on health and safety and training in 1996. In the context of the introduction, in February 1999, of a European single market in electricity, the social partners in the sector organised a joint workshop on the impact of restructuring on employment in the sector (EU9902151F). In the public sector, EPSU and CEMR have previously held joint workshops on a variety of issues of common interest. The establishment of sectoral dialogue committees would therefore, in many ways, simply formalise existing exchanges.

Industrial change and developments in the sphere of social partner representation have led to some realignment in the social dialogue in certain sectors. This is partly associated with the liberalisation of services which were previously publicly provided. For example, the possibility of a separate social dialogue in the electricity industry is a function of the increasing privatisation of electricity generation and supply, and it is interesting to see whether similar developments will occur in the gas and water industries.

Another example of a possible realignment of social partners is apparent in postal services, where employers in certain privatised delivery services (such as door-to-door delivery and couriers) are hesitating between seeking membership in the postal services sectoral committee, or in the road transport committee. Another change in the postal sector is the establishment of a common employer organisation, POSTEUROP: previously, each post office was represented by its own, independent, representative.

The Commission is keen to focus the social dialogue more on the key themes or "pillars" outlined in the current EU Employment Guidelines (EU9810130F), such as equal opportunities, employability and adaptability. In particular under this last heading, strong calls are being made to the social partners to negotiate agreements to modernise the organisation of work. A number of sectors have already outlined their work programme for 1999 and others are in the process of drawing them up:

  • in the tourism, private security and railways sectors, emphasis is being placed on training and the mutual recognition of vocational training standards;
  • in commerce, one of the key themes continues to be the impact of the rise in electronic commerce;
  • in the footwear sector, child labour continues to be one of the key issues;
  • the cleaning industry is discussing the question of combating undeclared work in the sector; and
  • health and safety is on the list of topics to be discussed in the agriculture, fisheries and sugar sectors.


With the establishment of the new sectoral dialogue committees, the European industry-level social dialogue is entering a new phase. It is anticipated that this process will become more focused, particularly in relation to the four pillars of the Employment Guidelines. The privatisation of previously publicly-provided services and the evolution of industrial sectors are having an increasing effect on the alignment of social partner organisations in the social dialogue. The process therefore needs to remain flexible in order to be able to adjust to these changing requirements. The landmark agreement reached in the maritime sector can be considered as an indication of things to come (EU9802182F), as the sectoral social dialogue shapes up to meet the requirements of an increasingly focused policy agenda. (Tina Weber, ECOTEC Research & Consulting)

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